Admiring the Mitfords

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Tina Brown

In September, veteran editor Tina Brown reviewed The Six, a new joint biography — no, not of the half-dozen famous French composers who went by that collective monicker — but of Britain’s notorious Mitford sisters, some of whom we’ve been discussing this week. Brown wondered:

Why did [Diana] and Unity find the shimmer of totalitarian violence so attractive? Why were they dazzled by the glamour of authoritarianism…? Why were even their milder siblings — placid Pam, brother Tom, and their refined, aloof mother, Sydney — also fascist sympathizers…? Why was Jessica drawn to — or blind to — Stalin’s nominally left-wing brand of murderous tyranny?

These were, of course, sensible questions (even though the bit about Stalin being “nominally left-wing” was an absurd, transparently feeble effort by the left-wing Brown to delink Stalin from “the left”). But they were followed by an utterly outrageous question: “So which of ‘The Six’ does one come to admire?”

Admire?

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Hadley Freeman

Brown isn’t alone in thinking that there’s actually something worth admiring about these women. Alas, any number of biographers, memoirists, and others have spoken of the Mitfords in similar terms. One of them is Guardian columnist Hadley Freeman. Two years ago, she confessed to her own intense admiration for the Mitfords – and further confessed that she was uneasy about feeling such a powerful fondness for them.

Why was Freeman uneasy? Because Jessica was a Stalinist and the others were Nazis (or at least Nazi sympathizers to some degree or other)? No. Freeman was uneasy because she was worried that admiring the Mitfords is “seen as something girlish, shallow and immature, like having an over-developed fondness for ponies, or wanting to be a ballerina.”

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The Mitford family

Freeman went on – and if you’re reading this standing up, please sit down:

As a middle-class American – and Jewish, to boot – I should be repulsed by the Mitfords. That I’m not is because they collectively represent something much greater than their (fascinating) biographical details….To me, and I suspect to a lot of other women (for it is mainly women) whom they fascinate, they remain an exciting reminder of a woman’s ability to shape her own life, for better or worse, uncowed by familial and social expectations and restrictions.

Yes, you read that right: the ultimate lesson of the Mitfords’ lives – the lives, that is, of these slavish, foolish, pathetic acolytes of Hitler and Stalin – is all about female empowerment.

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Nancy Mitford

Freeman continued: “Decca went from being a pampered, uneducated aristocratic child to a fierce civil rights campaigner in the US.” Well, yes, Jessica (Decca) did involve herself in the U.S. civil-rights movement – but she did so because she, like her Kremlin masters, saw CPUSA participation in that movement as advancing the larger cause of spreading Communism in the Western world. As for Diana, wrote Freeman, she “remained unapologetically devoted” to her husband Oswald Mosley “to the day he died.” Yes, Diana loved her husband, the most dangerous Fascist in British history – and she also kept praising Adolf Hitler until the day she died. Nancy? She “lived a somewhat lonely life in Paris, writing novels.” Hoffman delicately omits to mention Unity, presumably because Unity’s devotion to Adolf Hitler was so fanatical that even Hoffman can’t find a way to prettify it.

“How many of us,” Hoffman asked, after offering up these perverse thumbnail portraits,

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Unity Mitford with Hitler

can say that we pursued such individualistic lives, utterly unshaped by our parents and unlike our siblings?….it might sound odd to say this about a family spiced with such bitter ingredients as Hitler and loss, but what the Mitford sisters represent is courage and freedom.

Hoffman was right about one thing: yep, this did sound odd. More than odd.

mitford_1441145cFor this was, in fact, a family of sisters who hated freedom, and made no secret of it. Indeed, if Unity, Diana, and Jessica hadn’t made so much noise about their hatred of freedom and love of totalitarianism, chances are they’d hardly be remembered today. Yes, the West’s twentieth-century struggle to defend liberty against the scourges of Nazism and Communism yielded up a great many examples of remarkable courage in the cause of freedom: the rows of grave in military cemeteries across Europe testify to that. To use these same words to sum up the lives of the vile Mitford maidens is, it must be said, nothing less than obscene.

The glamorous Nazi

Yesterday we began discussing the Mitford sisters, who during the last century were glamorous – and notorious – celebrities in their native Britain. We kicked off the family portrait with Unity (1914-48), who adored Adolf Hitler and ended up becoming his intimate friend.

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Diana Mitford

But Unity wasn’t the only Nazi in the Mitford clan. Her sister Diana (1910-2003) was described by various observers as “the peerless beauty of the family” and as “the nearest thing to Botticelli’s Venus that I have ever seen.” Her admirer Evelyn Waugh, who said that she “ran through the room like a peal of bells,” dedicated his novel Vile Bodies to her. At eighteen she married the heir to the Guinness brewery fortune; but then, in 1932, she met Oswald Mosley, founder of the British Union of Fascists. It was love at first sight.

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Oswald Mosley

Their politics were a perfect match. At a 1935 rally in Hyde Park where everyone else was singing “God Save the King,” Diana gave a Heil Hitler salute. Together with Unity, she attended several of Nazis’ annual Nuremberg rallies; in 1936 Hitler (who called her and Unity his “angels”) sent a chauffeured Mercedes to transport her to the Berlin Olympics.

In that same year, after spending four years sneaking around with Mosley behind her husband’s back, Diana divorced Guinness and married her Fascist amour. The wedding took place at the Berlin home of Joseph Goebbels, with Hitler himself in attendance. During the years leading up to the war, Diana explored with Nazi officials the possibility of starting a Germany-based radio station that would broadcast into Britain, mixing popular music with English-language propaganda.

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Diana and Unity at the 1937 Nuremberg rally

Four years later, back in the U.K., Mosley was thrown in prison. Under interrogation by British authorities, Diana admitted that “she would like to see the German system of government in England because of all it had achieved in Germany.” Unbeknownst to Diana, her sister Nancy had testified against her, calling her even more of a dangerous fanatic than Mosley himself. Diana soon joined her husband behind bars, although her cousin Winston Churchill saw to it that their accommodations were comfortable, if not downright luxurious. (The prison priest called their quarters at Holloway Prison “the Garden of Eden.”) Their release in 1943 caused widespread public outrage.

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Diana and Oswald Mosley

After the war, Diana and Oswald relocated to a mansion on the outskirts of Paris. Dubbed “La Temple de la Gloire,” it was located near the home of their close friends and political soulmates the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Unrepentant in her Nazism, Diana edited a Fascist magazine; following Mosley’s death in 1970, she continued to support and socialize with the British Union of Fascists. Even as she denied that she and her husband had ever been anti-Semites, she clung to the idea that it wouldn’t have been terribly unreasonable to resettle the European Jews in “somewhere like Uganda – very empty and lovely climate.”

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Diana with her son Max Mosley, who ended up becoming president of the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile

Though some upper-crust Brits spurned her society, she didn’t mind: “Being hated,” she wrote to her sister Deborah in 2001, “means absolutely nothing to me, as you know.” Yet in her last days she pooh-poohed the image of herself and Mosley as postwar outcasts: “The story about us being pariahs and all that, it’s all nonsense really,” she said in 2002. “I’ve never had rudeness or disagreeableness ever….If you met the Communists at dinner, you wouldn’t have a row.” Her Nazi views certainly didn’t keep editors at The Times of London, Evening Standard, and Spectator from assigning her book reviews.

When historian Andrew Roberts interviewed her not long before her death, she still talked like an old Nazi. “Hitler was attractive,” she told Roberts, “though not handsome, with great inner dynamism and charm….I don’t suppose I’ve met anyone quite so charming.” Asked about the Holocaust, she said: “I’m sure he was to blame for the extermination of the Jews….He was to blame for everything, and I say that as someone who approved of him.” What, inquired Roberts, would she do if Hitler were to walk into the room, right then and there? “I should have to be pleased,” Diana answered, “and ask him how it had been in Hell, or Heaven, or wherever he’d been.”

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Lady Diana Mosley in her later years

When she died, the obituarists mentioned her Nazism but – in a surprising number of instances – chose to emphasize her charm. The headline of Sarah Lyall’s obit in the New York Times read: “Lady Diana Mosley, Fascist Who Dazzled, Is Dead at 93.” Diana, wrote Lyall, had “presided over a beautifully decorated house, Temple de la Gloire, where she gardened, wrote, read, gave interviews, kept up on London literary gossip and entertained an endless stream of glittery visitors who were, inevitably, thoroughly enchanted by her quick wit, sparkling appearance, and sly sense of humor…she was always impeccably dressed, always a gracious hostess, and always intellectually vigorous.” Some Nazi! The novelist and critic A.N. Wilson, a friend of Diana’s, called her the “most beautiful, most intelligent, and most beguiling of the celebrated Mitford sisters.” And Hitler? All too many of Diana’s necrologists reduced him to little more than a footnote in her glamorous life.

Putin’s British billionaire

On October 7, Vladimir Putin celebrated his sixty-third birthday. To commemorate this occasion, we’re spending a few days here at Useful Stooges looking at Putin – and at a few of his benighted fans around the world. Today: the grand poobah of auto racing.

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Putin with Bernie Ecclestone

He’s 83, he’s worth over $8 billion, and he’s the head of the Formula One Group, which manages Formula One racing. He’s also a fan – and buddy – of Vladimir Putin.

Speaking last fall to a reporter for a Russian newspaper, British tycoon Bernie Ecclestone called the Kremlin leader “a first-class person,” saying “I always supported him.” In the same interview, Ecclestone also made the bemusing statement that Putin “could control Europe or America; he is able to deal with it. But I think he is very busy. Let him finish what he’s doing and then we’ll see.”

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Two vicious homophobes sharing an intimate moment

That wasn’t the first time Ecclestone had praised Putin. “I’ve great admiration for him and his courage to say what he says,” Ecclestone said in a CNN interview in February of last year. He singled out for special approbation Putin’s hostility to gay people, his view that children should not be exposed to gays (or to any non-condemnatory mention of them), and his public warning to gay athletes at the Sochi Winter Olympics last year that they should stay away from children while on Russian soil. “I completely agree with those sentiments,” Ecclestone told CNN, “and if you took a world census you’d find 90 per cent of the world agree with it as well.” Such views, he added, “may upset a few people but that’s how the world is. It’s how he sees [the world] and I think he’s completely right.”

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Ecclestone with Max Mosley

As a member of Bernie Ecclestone’s pantheon of heroes, Putin is in interesting company. Among Ecclestone’s other idols (and chums) is Max Mosley, son of the notorious Oswald Mosley (1896-1980), founder of the British Union of Fascists and himself a close pal of Joseph Goebbels, at whose home in Berlin Mosley married his second wife, Diana Guinness, in 1936. (Among the wedding guests was Adolf Hitler himself.) Years ago, Ecclestone suggested that the younger Mosley – who started his career as a political associate of his dad’s and who for 16 years ran Formula One’s governing body, the Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile – would make a great prime minister for Britain; auto exec Alan Curtis told the Conservatives in 2005 that if they could find a safe parliamentary seat for Mosley, Ecclestone would pour cash into the party. (Asked about this seven years later, Curtis affirmed: “Bernie would always support whatever Max did.”)

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Ron Lauder

But Ecclestone’s enthusiasm for Mosley is small potatoes compared to his 2009 comments about Hitler. In an interview with the London Times, Ecclestone expressed admiration for the Führer’s leadership skills – his ability to “get things done,” which, in Ecclestone’s opinion, made him a considerably more effective politician than, say, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. “I prefer strong leaders,” he explained. Among those who called for Ecclestone’s resignation was World Jewish Congress (WJC) president Ronald Lauder – in response to which Ecclestone suggested that the WJC, rather than criticizing him, should have “sort[ed] the banks out” (his point, he explained, being that Jews “have a lot of influence” in that sector).

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A thumbs-up for a “first-class person”

But back to Putin. Ecclestone first met him in February 2013 in Sochi, when Russia was preparing to host its first Grand Prix there. (The Kremlin now pays Formula One a $47 million yearly fee to hold a Grand Prix within its borders.) The two men forged a friendship, and Putin invited Ecclestone to attend the February 2014 Sochi Olympics as his personal guest. After Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 was shot down over Ukraine in July 2014, apparently by Russian or pro-Russian troops, Ecclestone came under intense pressure to cancel the Sochi Grand Prix, which was scheduled for the following October. But he stood firm, saying: “I don’t see any problem with going. We are not involved in politics.”

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Ever the charmer

In the end, Ecclestone professed to be so thrilled with the way the Sochi race turned out that in December he presented his Russian colleagues with the Race Promoters Trophy, which is given annually to the organizers of the year’s best Formula One Grand Prix. At the awards ceremony, Ecclestone showered Putin with even more accolades. “Ignore all this nonsense from America and Europe,” he advised Russia Today. “It would be very nice to have him running Europe. He knows what he’s doing. He is positive and in the end he will succeed because I think all these silly things like these sanctions are completely[,] utterly wrong.”